Brazil’s death toll for Covid-19 passed a grim 500,000 on Saturday, with experts warning that this number may well get worse due to a slow vaccination programme and the government’s refusal to encourage social distancing measures.
Anti-government protesters took to the streets in cities across Brazil, brandishing banners and flags while blaming President Jair Bolsonaro for the country’s worsening health and economic crisis, and calling for him to be ousted.
Thousands gathered in parts of Rio de Janeiro with posters bearing slogans such as: “Get out Bolsonaro. Government of hunger and unemployment,” and “500 thousand deaths. It’s his fault” – the “his” alluding to Mr Bolsonaro.
Meanwhile, in São Paulo, protesters dropped red balloons in memory of the victims of the virus.
“Brazil is experiencing a great setback,” explained Isabela Gouljor, a 20-year-old student who took part in the protests in Rio. “The country was an exemplary country for vaccination in the world. We have widely recognised institutions but today we are in a sad situation.”
Indeed, only 11 per cent of Brazilians have received both doses of the vaccine, with epidemiologists warning that, due to new variants circulating and winter approaching in the southern hemisphere, deaths will continue to increase.
Critics say that Mr Bolsonaro’s dismissal of Covid restrictions, such as social distancing measures and mask wearing, and his promotion of disproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, are in part responsible for the country’s huge death toll and slow vaccination campaign.
Brazil’s outbreak is currently the world’s second-deadliest, with nearly 100,000 new infections and 2,000 new deaths registered each day.
Gonzalo Vecina, former head of Brazilian health regulator Anvisa, explained: “I think we are going to reach 700,000 or 800,000 deaths before we get to see the effects of vaccination.”
He added: “We are experiencing the arrival of these new variants and the Indian variant will send us for a loop.”
Raphael Guimaraes, who works at Brazilian biomedical centre Fiocruz, underlined how delays in the vaccination programme would mean that its full effects will not be felt until the autumn. He warned that this could mean Brazil once again endures a situation similar to that of its March-April peak, when the country averaged 3,000 deaths a day.
”We are still in an extremely critical situation, with very high transmission rates and hospital bed occupancy that is still critical in many places,” he said.
As very few Coronavirus measures are being adhered to in Brazil, experts warn that vaccinating the entire population is the only option to beat the virus.
Ester Sabino, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo, explained: “We really need to increase vaccination very quickly.”
Mass inoculation will, however, require a consistent supply of vaccines and ingredients in Brazil, which have not been constant in recent months. Imports from China were delayed when Mr Bolsonaro offended Beijing with comments that were seen as being anti-Chinese.
Saturday’s marches took place in at least 22 of Brazil’s 26 states, as well as in Brasilia. Many of these were promoted by left-wing political parties, hopeful that Mr Bolsonaro’s declining popularity will see him lose next year’s presidential election.
“For the leftists, putting their followers in the streets is a way of wearing Mr Bolsonaro down for the election,” said Leandro Consentino, a political science professor at Insper, a university in São Paulo.
He added: “But at the same time they are contradicting themselves and losing the discourse of maintaining health care, because they are causing the same agglomerations as Bolsonaro.”
Additional reporting by Reuters and AP